Snakes and Bugs and Prickles, Oh My!
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Health, Wellness, & Safety
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Does Nature give your child the willies? Is every venture outdoors an anxious ordeal for your child because he’s afraid of what lurks in the grass? This might have been mildly amusing and endearing when your child was small but now that he’s bigger it’s just annoying. What can you do? How can you help your child feel more comfortable outside and have more fun?
The truth is your child is right. There are creepy crawly things outside that might actually touch him once in a while. Some of these make disconcerting buzzy sounds. Some of these can surprise a kid by appearing suddenly where it didn’t seem anything was before. Some of these can even sting an unlucky child. And that’s not all.
There are other things that a person can accidentally touch that aren’t bugs or snakes but feel unpleasant. Cobwebs. Slimy stuff. Sticky things. Prickly bushes. When children decide that staying indoors makes sense because it limits all the unwelcome sensations Nature holds in store, they are making a rational, evidence-based decision. They are right.
So the way to help your child feel more comfortable outside is not to deny her assessment of the danger. It doesn’t help to tell your child that “bugs won’t bother you” because obviously they are bothering, just by their very existence. When you deny what your child believes is absolutely true, you undermine your own credibility. How can your child trust you when you deny a truth that is staring you both in the face: crawly things are creepy (at least according to your child).
A more effective plan is to help your child feel more in control. The problem with Nature, from a child’s perspective, is its unpredictability. But Nature is not random. Spider webs are strung between things. Bees hang around flowers. Snakes are in tall grass or in sunny, dry places. So an open lawn is likely “safe.” Start there.
Then go on a thought-safari. Where, looking around from your spot together on the grass, does your child predict he can find a bee? The answer is not “everywhere” but “over there, among the flowers.” Where does your child predict he can find a spider web? Again, not “everywhere” but strung between bushes. Go and check (by yourself if your child isn’t brave enough to go with you). Were his predictions right?
Help your child to see that she can predict at least some of the surprises Nature holds in store and if she can predict them she can control them. Or at least she can control her interactions with them. They will no longer be such a surprise.
At the same time, make certain that your own anxieties aren’t rubbing off on your child. Be careful to not inflate the problems insects and spiders present or the likelihood of encountering a dangerous snake. You also, standing there on the lawn with your child, might consider the predictability of creatures instead of their unpredictability. When you are more comfortable outdoors, your child will be too.
Children who are nervous about Nature need more experience outdoors, not less. But they need your support to get past their fears. Becoming more confident is a process and it might take time. But together, you can help your child feel less panicked and have more fun.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.